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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Euros - It's A Numbers Game

"Park your bus on THIS"

We welcome back the ever-excellent Rich Hall to kick off our Euro 2012 coverage. Expect cagey affairs and fewer bulls than bears, which could spell the end for Spain's reign.

What began at Wembley in the summer when football came home will end in Kiev in three weeks’ time.

Poland and Ukraine will host the fifth and final 16-team European Championship. Four years from now, 24 teams will contest Euro 2016 in France. UEFA president Michel Platini wooed voters from national associations with the promise of an expanded tournament, and therefore a greater chance of participation – and of cashing in on the financial rewards that qualification brings.

Most commentators see this as a retrograde step. The 16-team format, which produces eight quarter-finalists with no recourse to messy best third-place finishers, produced the greatest World Cups. A bloated, 24-team set-up introduces an extra round, and therefore another match to squeeze out of the physical reserves of players who are already operating on the limit after the domestic season marathon. However, with one exception, the 16-team European Championships failed to produce compelling tournament football – and there is little chance that we’ll see something fresh and exciting this time.

The rose-tinted summer of 1996 saw a limited and uninspiring Germany triumph and a Czech team that was far inferior to its successors in 2000 and 2004 reach the final. Even Terry Venables’ England – remembered for an hour of magic against the Netherlands and a heroic semi-final defeat – actually only won two games out of five, all at their Wembley home, and one of those was against Scotland.

Things were much better four years later. France grafted high quality attackers onto their World Cup-winning side, and the 2000 Zinedine Zidane model was much improved. Joint hosts the Netherlands topped a difficult group (which included France) and produced some thrilling attacking football to destroy Yugoslavia in the quarter-final before succumbing to their penalty-taking nerves against Italy. A strong Spain qualified for the knock-out stages in dramatic style against Yugoslavia before falling to the French. Portugal, inspired by Figo, Nuno Gomes and Rui Costa, were thrilling – and for 117 minutes matched France in the semi-final.

That summer saw the orthodoxy of 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 take root. The French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish all played this way and thrived, while Germany, employing an outdated sweeper system, and England, burrowing on with 4-4-2, were bundled out in the group stage.

But something happened to international football between 2000 and 2002, and things have not been the same since. The first World Cup of the new millennium was a drab affair and the European Championship that followed was barely better. The growing globalisation of the game shut down the possibilities for surprise and innovation.

Tactical homogeneity began to take root. Greece’s unlikely triumph is all that most people remember of Euro 2004. Apart from Cristiano Ronaldo’s tears in the final. Few recall that fancied Spain and Italy crashed in the group stage. Few remember how bad Germany were, or how France and their Arsenal invincibles were so easily overcome by Greece. The bright spot was a stunning group stage clash between the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, which is perhaps the best international tournament game of the century so far.

In 2008, Spain won with rare panache. But, remember, as Luis Aragones’ team beat Germany in the final, Pep Guardiola was still preparing for his first game in charge of Barcelona. Tiki-taka was still in the future. Spain won without conceding a goal in the knock-out stages. It was a feat they repeated in South Africa two years later.

So, what of Spain, this year’s most likely winners?

One may hope that, freed first from the pressure to win their first tournament in 44 years and then to win their first World Cup, they will complete their hat-trick with a deluge of goals. That pressure can certainly constrain. Subjugated by 24 years of hurt, Brazil won the World Cup in 1994 playing in a tactical straitjacket. The Ivory Coast were similarly conservative, though ultimately unsuccessful, in this year’s African Nations Cup. Spain, free from fighting past failures, could throw off the shackles and prove emphatically the superiority of their style of football.

However, no matter how free you feel, there’s not much you can do if teams expertly park the bus. The way to beat Barcelona and Spain is to subsume players’ egos into the collective effort of containment. It requires discipline, stamina and the ability to ruthlessly take the chance that comes your way. Jose Mourinho’s Inter did it. The Netherlands nearly did it in the World Cup final, but Arjen Robben missed his one-on-one with Iker Casillas. Fabio Capello’s England did it. But don’t take much notice of Spain’s poor record in friendlies. In these matches, multiple substitutions mean that half a team spent by the physical and mental exhaustion can be replaced. This is not so in tournament matches. Not counting the Confederations Cup, Spain have only lost one competitive game (against Switzerland) in five-and-a-half years.

The loss of Carles Puyol is a blow. As is that of David Villa, his country’s all-time leading goal-scorer. Xavi’s injury niggles and fatigue are a concern. However, Spain’s resources run deep. Reserves such as Javi Martinez, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla would get into anyone else’s team. Lack of motivation is a concern. But surely the chance to make history by becoming the first team to win three major tournaments in a row would prove incentive enough – as will the Barcelona and Real Madrid players’ desire to right the wrongs of the Champions’ League semi-finals.

Luck, though, is the most valuable commodity in major championships. And it is never bestowed on one country for long. Italy fans had to endure penalty shoot-out heartache in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World cups before winning in 2006. Euro 88 winners, the Netherlands’ superiority went unrewarded in 1974, 1978, 1992, 1998 and 2000 – all tournaments they should, arguably, have won. France may have won back-to-back tournaments at the turn of the millennium, but they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994 and, with the exception of their Zidane-inspired run to the final in 2006, have done little since. Even Germany have in the last 30 years lost five major finals, while winning just two.

This summer, with all teams well-organised and capable of sustaining tactical discipline, complete mismatches are unlikely. No team is likely to play two out-and-out attackers. All 16 teams should start with a back four. Only Italy, with a midfield diamond, are expected to depart from the orthodoxy of 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.

International coaches have so little time to prepare for major tournaments that keeping it simple has become the mantra. At the World Cup two years ago, Chile offered something different: a 3-3-1-3 formation, based on pressing high up the pitch. But even this wasn’t new. Then manager Marcelo Bielsa had Argentina playing that way a decade earlier. And in South Africa, Diego Maradona’s Argentina offered a set-up with only one proper midfielder. In the quarter-final against Germany Javier Mascherano was predictably swamped and Argentina were routed.

No coach will go into this summer’s tournament light on numbers in midfield, not even Vicente Del Bosque. His one tactical change to the basic way that Barcelona set-up in the first three of Guardiola’s four years in charge was to push Andres Iniesta into the front three, advance Xavi into a midfield position slightly further up the pitch, and introduce a second deep-lying midfielder, Xabi Alonso, alongside Sergio Busquets. Given their opponents’ defensiveness, this extra insurance seems unnecessary.

It is not impossible to imagine Italy and Ireland parking the bus effectively against Spain, and winning in the style that Switzerland did in Durban two years ago. Ireland, coached by the old fox Giovanni Trapattoni, famously raise their game against the big boys (think England in 1988 and 1990, Italy in 1994, Germany in 2002). Italy’s defence will be composed largely of the Juventus rearguard that shipped just 20 goals in 38 unbeaten league games last season.

It is Spain’s turn to be unfortunate. They have lost key players to injury. They are up against teams that are capable of frustrating them. While they are rightly favourites, don’t be shocked if they go out in the group stage.

Of the other teams, Germany are due a tournament win. They have a well-balanced squad, with all first choice players available. France and Denmark could both surpass expectations. The Netherlands’ creaking defence could cost them. England played in the first match of a 16-team European Championship finals tournament. Few expect them to appear in the last, although they will be solid, conservative and hard to beat. Like most teams on display.

The truth is that any of the 16 sides could ride their luck to the title this summer. Even Poland, Ukraine and Ireland, perhaps the most unlikely winners, will think that if Greece could do it in 2004, then so can they.

In four years’ time there will be a field of 24. Let’s hope this will bring more diversity of formations and tactics, leading to clashes of styles and better games. But don’t bet on it. And this summer, think twice before betting on Spain.

1 comment:

  1. I think the idea for an 24-team European Championship is bu****it. If minnows countries like Scotland, Norway and Lithuania cannot qualify then it should be a message to them to up their game and get better to go to tournaments. Not handed to them on a platter. The reason why the 16-team tournament works is because of the good groups and the number of European countries. In the current format, you mostly have a Group of Death (which is always entertaining), matches like Italy v Spain, then France v England in the opening games and just better to watch. If you have 24 teams, you just get bloated and have little more what you expect from qualifying. And Europe doesn't have enough countries as it is. Europe has around 53 registered countries, and 24 practially half of the continent in a tournament. How is that fair or workable in qualifying?

    If UEFA want to try it in 2016 then let them, and if this fails, which I think it will, then revert it back to the old format from 2020 onwards. And let have a fair play-off system. No more seedings, make it random again. European Championships should be for the best 16 teams in Europe. If you are not good enough to get there, then you need to improve. Obviously Platini doesn't get that and is just playing lip-service to underachieving nations.